Not as Literal as You Think? A Review of One Bible, Many Versions
“Are literal versions really literal?” So asks Dave Brunn in One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal? Brunn is a missionary and educator with extensive Bible translation experience. Noting that the Bible is “virtually silent” on “the issue of translation theory,” he seeks in his book to answer questions like:
- “How literal should a Bible translation be?”
- “What makes a translation of the Scriptures faithful and accurate?”
- “What is the significance of the original form and the original meaning?”
He examines versions as diverse as the Message, the New Living Translation, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and quite a few others. He lists examples on both the word level and the sentence level to show that “every ‘literal’ version frequently sets aside its own standards of literalness and word-for-word translation,” when slavish literalism would compromise meaning in the target language. For example, the New American Standard Bible–hailed as one of the most literal English translations–takes Genesis 4:1 (Hebrew: [Adam] knew [Eve]) and translates knew as had relations with. This accurately captures the meaning of Gen. 4:1, but it is not word-for-word.
So, too, with the ESV: Mark 9:3’s “no cloth refiner on earth” becomes “no one on earth” (among many, many examples Brunn gives).
At issue here is the relationship between form and meaning. He writes:
The form includes the letters, words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. The meaning consists of the concepts or thoughts associated with each of the forms. Both elements are essential in all communication. …[I]t could be hard to argue that one is more important than the other.
To translate, Brunn points out, is to necessarily change the form. The only way to keep the form of Hebrew or Greek is to leave the text in Hebrew or Greek. There is no such thing as “consistent formal equivalence” between “any two languages on earth.” Brunn (rightly, in my view) suggests that it is okay (even necessary) “to set aside form in order to preserve meaning,” but that one should not sacrifice meaning for the sake of preserving form. Besides, he points out, no translation (not even the most “literal” one) sacrifices meaning every time for the sake of formal, word-for-word equivalence.
Brunn drives his point home especially well by making reference to other languages. Perhaps folks argue about literalness in English translations because of English’s linguistic/familial relationship to Greek. But what about non-Indo-European languages, Brunn asks? “As long as the debate about Bible translation stays within the realm of English translation, the tendency will be to oversimplify some of the issues,” he writes. “I believe that many well-meaning Christians have unwittingly made English the ultimate standard.” His examples of translation challenges going from English to Lamogai (the language into which he worked with others to translate the New Testament) reinforce his idea that word-for-word equivalence is simply not possible across languages. (Lamogai, for example, uses gender-neutral terms to refer to siblings, whereas Greek and English do not.)
The translations that people fight over have more in common than we may first realize. Brunn calls for unity among Christians when it comes to what translations we use. “If we set any two English Bible versions side by side,” he says, “We could easily find hundreds of instances where each version has the potential of strengthening and enhancing the other.” (Indeed, there are even times when less “literal” versions like the NIV or NLT seem to stay closer to the original languages at the word level than versions like the ESV or NASB.)
Knowledge of Hebrew and Greek is not needed to profitably use One Bible, Many Versions, though Brunn does have footnotes for “readers who are already knowledgeable in translation issues.” His numerous charts clearly show the difference between form and meaning in multiple translations.
Brunn gives good guidelines for Bible readers and translators alike, as they seek to discern what translations to use and how to think about translation theoretically. Especially in the second half, the book felt a little repetitive–I didn’t think Brunn needed as many examples to make his point that literal translations don’t consistently adhere to their own standards. Though perhaps those who need more convincing will appreciate the extensive charts.
What I was most impressed by was Brunn’s obvious high regard for Scripture, together with a pastoral sense of how to navigate the so-called Bible translation debates. In addition to these, the care with which he analyzed translations and compared them to each other made it easy to follow (and agree with) him. Whether you’re interested in Bible translation or exploring the differences between various versions, One Bible, Many Versions is an engaging and informative guide.